Dispatches from the Hermitage Archives

I’ve been at the Hermitage nearly three years and I still run across letters in our archives that are entirely new to me. Some are rather boring (“Please order more bird seed. Regards, Florence Sloane”) while others are heart-rending snapshots of a particular time in our nation’s turbulent history.

Today I found a good example of the latter; a short note from a soldier’s mother thanking Mrs. Sloane for hosting a party for servicemen at the Hermitage during World War I. Click the images to enlarge and read for yourself (I think reading these types of things in their original hand adds much to the experience).

The onset of the First World War brought about a time of increased prosperity for the Sloane family and the city of Norfolk in general. The Sloane knitting mills worked double time in order to fulfill contracts with the United States Army – William Sloane & Co. provided thousands of soldiers with their standard issue socks and long underwear.

But trade was not the only thing that increased in Norfolk during war time – in 1917, the year the US entered the war, the United States Navy purchased 447 acres of land on Sewell’s Point and established an enormous Naval Base. Soon, the city was filled with thousands of servicemen seeking recreation. Commercial establishments were overrun and there were few outlets for wholesome entertainment.

The Sloanes enjoyed considerable wealth before the war, but the war made them wealthier beyond reckoning. Instead of retreating to the Hermitage and counting their money, Mr. and Mrs. Sloane devoted themselves to aiding the military in whatever way possible. The new military presence in Norfolk was seen as raucous and disruptive by the established families of the city. Many citizens responded negatively to the massive intrusion in their town. Mrs. Sloane responded to this outcry by opening her home.

The Hermitage quickly evolved into more than a summer cottage – it soon became a true country estate capable of entertaining on a grand scale. The Hermitage was open every weekend during the summer for enormous lawn parties where as many as 1,850 servicemen enjoyed music, lawn games, barbecues, and wrestling matches.

Above image: Lawn games pitting English against American troops in… log wrestling? (Any lawn game historians out there want to shed light on this particular pastime?) Note the Hermitage in the background. 

I’m always interested to read letters from the years surrounding WWI because I feel like it was such a watershed time for Mrs. Sloane as both a public figure and as a collector. The War thrust her into civic life during a period when women were only just beginning to assume positions of leadership in their communities (particularly in the South) and she went into it guns blazing and never looked back. Before WWI she contented herself with collecting traditional household goods (silver serveware, English pewter, Japanese export porcelain) and commissioning standard stately portraits of her children by established American painters. After the War her focus shifted significantly and she became interested in modern art. In 1918 she began collecting works by contemporary artists such as Eugene Francis Savage and Giorgio de Chirico. She expanded her home into a public museum and spent the next forty years filling it with thousands of objects from across the globe.

Maybe I am wrong about the influences of WWI, but in 1916 the Hermitage was a five room summer cottage and by 1926 it was a 42-room Arts and Crafts mansion filled with nearly 10,000 objects of fine and decorative art. What do you think?

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Attingham… again? Why yes!

Long-time readers of this blog (all four of you) will be well versed in the trip I took to England in the summer of 2010 to attend the Attingham Trust Summer School.  If you haven’t the faintest idea of what I’m talking about, please click here and here to take a wander down memory lane.

Well, imagine my delight when I learned that Attingham was planning a summer study program right here in the States for the summer of 2012! I got my ducks in a row and applied embarrassingly early for the Hudson Valley program (or ‘programme’ if you’re feeling fancy), a description of which you can read at length here. I found out yesterday that all my various scholarships and grants have been approved, so I am delighted to announce that the Hudson Valley study program[me] is a go!

The itinerary is a good fit for me professionally, as Mrs. Sloane was born and raised in New York. She was exceedingly proud of her upbringing — most particularly that she grew up around the corner from the Metropolitan.

I was reading through some of our files the other day and came across one of my favorite passages about Mrs. Sloane’s childhood in New York, as told by the first registrar of the Hermitage (and Mrs. Sloane’s personal friend), Lela M. Hine. In an oral history taken in 1997, Ms. Hine recalled:

“There are a few things about the Sloanes that I remember hearing from Mrs. Sloane. For example, when Mrs. Sloane was a girl, she lived in New York City, somewhere near East 19th street as I recall. As you know, she was a rather short person, but as a young girl, also somewhat plump. Her physician recommended walking as a good exercise for her. On her walks to and from the private school she attended, she often passed the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was not only an interesting place to visit but also served as a resting place on the walks. I believe it was these frequent visits to the Metropolitan that started her lifelong interest not only in the arts, but also in museums.”

It seems she struck an imposing figure from an early age.

In a letter dated 1934 (presumably long after she grew out of her ‘plump’ stage) Mrs. Sloane wrote at length about her affinity for the Metropolitan, including this passage:

“John Taylor Johnson of New York, a friend of my Father’s, was president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for many years, and all my childhood, until I left New York to make Norfolk my home, the Metropolitan was a treasure house to me. For twenty five years I have contributed to its support and have been in close touch with its work through its monthly bulletins of activities, accessions, donations, etc., and have also been in intimate touch with several of its departments and their curators.”

Isn’t that wonderful? The Hermitage house and collection is the result of a lifetime of collaboration with the Metropolitan, so I am very excited to spend two days behind the scenes of the new American Wing before heading up the Hudson River Valley. A number of our favorite Hermitage artists will make appearances along the way and I look forward to sharing it all upon my return.

Special effusive thanks to the American Friends of Attingham for their continued support, the Attingham Advisory Committee for kindly accepting me, and to the Virginia Commission for the Arts (and, by extension, the National Endowment for the Humanities) for providing generous grant support to cover the cost of my tuition. I am looking forward to June!

Mrs. Sloane Returns to New York

… in spirit at least.

This past weekend I journeyed to Bronxville, New York to present a paper on our esteemed patroness, Florence Sloane. My paper was part of a panel on ‘Biography’ at the Sarah Lawrence Women’s History conference. You may not know that Mrs. Sloane was a native New Yorker, so it felt like a bit of a homecoming.

The baby was DELIGHTED to be there.

The campus of Sarah Lawrence is especially comely.

We had a lovely group of very sharp ladies attend the panel and I enjoyed meeting my co-presenter very much. I plan on adapting the paper into a lecture for our hometown audience, so I don’t want to share too much of it here, but I thought I would at least share the introduction so that those of you who are feeling especially curious can slake your thirst:

Florence K. Sloane and the Origins of Culture in Coastal Virginia: 1898-1953

Located at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay in the fertile Tidewater region of Eastern Virginia is the port city of Norfolk. Spend any time in Norfolk and you will invariably find yourself at the Chrysler Museum of Art. The Museum is the beating heart of this mid-size Southern city. Its world-class collection of fine and decorative art rivals that of its northern neighbors  and boasts works by Veronese, Matisse, Braque, Cassatt, Hopper and many other American and European masters. The Chrysler glass collection, with more than 10,000 pieces, is the one of the finest of its kind in the world.

But the Chrysler is not all the city as to offer, nor was it the first museum built in the area. The Hermitage Museum and Gardens, located just five miles north of the Chrysler, stands as testament and monument to the founder of Norfolk’s museums and cultural life – the indomitable Florence K. Sloane. The Hermitage is home to the Sloane Collection, an assemblage of fine and decorative art which rivals the Chrysler collection in both scope and inventiveness. With over 10,000 objects, the collection spans 5,000 years of art history and represents over 30 countries. As a pioneering patron of early 20th century painters and sculptors, Mrs Florence Sloane is among the pantheon of great American collectors. Her triumphs were legion, but chief among them was that she managed to amass her formidable collection relatively unassisted, while physically isolated in the Virginia countryside, during the first half of the twentieth century – a time of tremendous social, financial, and political upheaval.

Today, outside of the Hermitage Museum, Florence Sloane is rarely remembered for her efforts. Credit inevitably goes to Walter P. Chrysler for the establishment of the Chrysler Museum, but that is false recognition. Walter P. Chrysler did not become part of the museum until 1971, which was thirty-two years after its doors were first opened. The Chrysler Museum was originally known as the Norfolk Museum of Arts and Sciences and may not have existed at all if not for the tireless work of Florence Sloane.

This paper explores the shared history of the Chrysler and the Hermitage as it relates to the role that Florence K. Sloane played in their establishment, and how her life’s work contributed to the cultural bedrock of Norfolk that persists to this day. This paper will examine the historical forces at work behind her decision-making between 1895 and 1953 – a time which spans the Gilded Age, two World Wars, the roaring twenties, the Great Depression, and the post-war boom period. Her collection methods and significant acquisitions will be considered as well.

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Are you interested yet?! I’ve got 3,000 more words on the topic if so… Watch this space for upcoming lectures and events on our dear Florence Sloane. Until then, be well, and may the springtime treat you with warmth and kindness.